The Meaning of our Divine Services, part nine: Divine Liturgy, “The Thrice-Holy Hymn”
During the singing of the final Kontakion, the priest quietly prays the Prayer of the Thrice-Holy Hymn, which precedes the singing of that ancient hymn. The prayer is a rich theological utterance filled with scriptural allusions as indicated below:
O holy God, who restest in thy Holy Place; who art hymned by the Seraphim [Is. 57:15] with thrice-holy cry [Is. 6:2-3], and glorified by the Cherubim [Ps. 80:1], and worshipped by every heavenly Power; Who out of nothing [Gen. 1:26] hast brought all things into being; who hast created man after thine own image and likeness and has adorned him with thine every gift; who givest to him that askest wisdom and understanding [II Chrn. 1:10, Prov. 2:6]; who despisest not the sinner, but hast appointed repentance unto salvation; who hast vouchsafed unto us, thy humble and unworthy servants, even in this hour to stand before the glory of thy holy Altar and to offer the worship and praise which are due unto thee: Thyself, O Master, accept even from the mouth of us sinners the Hymn of the Trisagion, and visit us in thy goodness. Forgive us every transgression both voluntary and involuntary [Eph. 1:7]; sanctify our souls and bodies [I Cor. 6:11]; and grant us to serve thee in holiness all the days of our life [Luke 1:74-75]: through the intercessions of the holy Theotokos and of all the Saints who from the beginning of the world have been well-pleasing unto thee.
The deacon quietly asks the priest to “Bless the time of the Thrice-Holy Hymn.” The priest obliges by attributing all-holiness to God: “For holy art Thou, O Our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.”
The people then sing the Trisagion, or “Thrice-Holy Hymn,” which was widely used liturgically at least by the fifth century and was actually the entrance hymn used in sixth-century Constantinople as the faithful would process into the Church and the bishop and clergy would enter the Altar. At this time, the chanter would sing parts of Psalm 79 (80), which would then be followed by the Trisagion refrain (Farley 30 and Hatzidakis 132-33). Eventually, the chanting of Psalm 79 (80) was discontinued and the Trisagion came to follow the Entrance with the Gospel. We can see the Trisagion survive as entrance hymn today in funerals, during which this hymn is chanted as those present process into and out of the Church. On those occasions, the Trisagion is sung slowly and solemnly; however, during the Divine Liturgy the hymn should be sung more briskly, without losing the air of mystery that surrounds this ancient hymn to the Holy Trinity evoking the vision of the Prophet Isaiah, who beheld seraphim before the Lord’s throne (“And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” [Is. 6:3]) and St. John the Theologian, who saw a vision of four creatures glorifying God (“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord / God, the Almighty, who was and / who is and who is to come” [Rev. 4:8]).
Importantly, the qualities of God that are hymned in the Trisagion, (He is God, He is mighty, and He is immortal) are qualities shared by all Three Persons of the Trinity. Therefore, this hymn, because of its three-part structure, celebrates the Three Persons while simultaneously affirming God’s oneness.
During the Trisagion, the deacon initiates the clergy’s movement to the high place behind the Altar, called the synthronon, to the Bishop’s throne. This throne (or cathedra, from whence we get the word ‘cathedral’ in English—a church where a bishop is enthroned) represents God’s throne in Heaven, whereas the bishop’s cathedra in the nave of the church, which is where the Emperor used to be enthroned, is an earthly throne (Hatzidakis 134). Asking the priest to Command, Master, the deacon leads the clergy to the synthronon as the priest proclaims, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, not only the exclamation with which the Lord was greeted upon His entrance into Jerusalem (Luke 19:38), but King David’s prophetic anticipation of that entrance as recounted in Psalm 117 (118): 26. Standing before the bishop’s cathedra (throne), the deacon asks the priest to Bless, Master, the High Place. The association of the cathedra at the high place with the seat of the Lord derives from the prophecy of Isaiah: “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place” (57:15). The priest then blesses the bishop’s cathedra: Blessed art Thou on the Throne of the glory of Thy Kingdom, Thou that sittest on the Cherubim, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. The understanding of the Lord enthroned upon cherubim comes from both King David: “Thou that sittest on the cherubim [. . .] stir up Thy might and come to save us” (Ps. 79 1:1-2) and Christ: “When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the angels with him, then shall He sit on the throne of His glory” (Matt. 25:31).
Fr. Lawrence Farley, in Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, notes: “This procession” as the clergy approaches the synthronon “is a survival from the time of St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century. In those days, the service began when the bishop entered the Altar area, blessed the thrones on which he and his clergy were to sit, greeted the assembled faithful with a greeting of peace, and then sat down for the readings of Scripture” (33). Fr. Lawrence goes on to note that the deacon’s command to Let us attend! immediately following the singing of the Trisagion and the clergy’s procession to the High Place originates from these early days when, because the people had just entered the Church, there was still much talking and restlessness. To settle everyone down in preparation for the reading of Holy Scripture, the deacon calls for attention. St. John himself foregrounds the importance of this call in one of his homilies: “There [. . .] stands the deacon crying loud and saying, “Let us attend to the reading” [. . .] and yet none pays attention” (Act. Ap., Hom. XIX, 5).
There is, however, a deeper resonance in the command Let us attend (Proskomen in Greek). Whereas the call to attention certainly has practical relevance, in The Synaxarion Hiermonk Makarios of Simonos Petra Monastery on Mt. Athos notes it also refers to a profound spiritual event of universal significance. According to “a very ancient tradition,” immediately after the fall of Lucifer, the Archangel Michael summoned those hosts who remained faithful to the Triune God with Let us attend! Hiermonk Makarios explains that by this the Archangel Michael means “Let us be on guard! Let us be vigilant; for we, who have been raised up to stand before God, are of His making! Let us remember that we are servants! Let us strive for self-knowledge, seeing what a fall those who wanted to be equal to God have had” (66). The Archangel’s call to vigilance is repeated a number of times in the Divine Liturgy, here for to the first time. Each time it is not only a call to attention, but also a call that all the faithful be vigilant, not only attending to the Words of Sacred Scripture, but also guarding our thoughts so that we will not follow them away from Christ, but rather closer to Him and, thereby, in unity with our brethren.
This command is then immediately followed by the priest’s blessing upon all: Peace be unto all. Just as Christ bestowed His peace upon His apostles as his first action when appearing to them after the Resurrection (John 20:19) and St. Paul began his epistles by evoking Christ’s grace and peace (see Rom. 1:7, I Cor. 1:3, II Cor. 1:2, Gal. 1:3, Eph. 1:2, Phil. 1:2, Col. 1:2, I Thes. 1:1, II Thes. 1:2, I. Tim. 1:2, II Tim. 1:2, Titus 1:4, Phil. 1:3), here the priest invokes Christ’s peace upon the people: “In the Divine Liturgy, Christ is truly in our midst, and this presence transforms us. In the world, we know only turmoil, fear, and anxiety” (Farley 35). Fr. Lawrence goes on to note: “The timing of this blessing is important, for, having assembled, we receive the Lord’s peace as the preparation for hearing His Word. We cannot absorb the Word of God with distracted hearts” (Farley 35). The hearing of the Word, the culmination of the Liturgy of the Word (or Catechumens), immediately follows the bestowal of peace and it is to the Reading of Scripture that we now turn.
Next: Part Ten, “The Epistle and Gospel Readings”